U.S. Confident and Comfortable Before Critical Clash

Photograph by Matt Kremkau

US logoHARRISON, N.J. — For a team that needs to win Friday night, the United States men’s national team is feeling at ease. They are unbeaten since the return of Coach Bruce Arena, but should Costa Rica change that in the game at Red Bull Arena on Friday, the Americans’ chances of automatic qualification to the World Cup would be in peril. Arena is not worried.

“We know we have to win and we know all hell breaks lose when we lose a game,” Arena said. “All the critics come out and that’s part of it. That’s why we compete and we understand that when we sign up for this stuff. You never discuss losing and planning on losing, it’s not in our nature and it’s not the way we go about our business.”

Friday night will be the fourth time U.S. and Costa Rica have played each other in the past two years. The U.S. scored twice in the second half to beat Los Ticos at this summer’s Gold Cup while Costa Rica ended Jurgen Klinsmann‘s tenure with a 4–0 drubbing last November. Since then the U.S. is unbeaten in the Hex and has not conceded at home since allowing Rafael Márquez‘ late winner for Mexico. But the U.S. will have a makeshift backline that will have to cope with Costa Rica’s fluid and savvy attacking trio. Graham Zusi and Eric Lichaj are the likely options to start at right back with DeAndre Yedlin injured.

Also the club form of midfielder Kellyn Acosta is leading to doubts about him starting in midfield alongside the captain Michael Bradley. Arena that said Acosta is acclimating to his new role as an international but didn’t really hint at whether he would start him Friday night.

“I’m not giving you my lineup,” Arena said.

The players applied the tried and true adage of always winning home games in the Hex and should the U.S. hold serve with the two home games it has remaining. Yet to capture the three points, the U.S. will have to push numbers forward and risk creating space in the back to avoid being exposed on the counter, as it was the first time the two teams met in this qualifying cycle.

“It takes good positioning, balance and making sure we have numbers behind the ball,” Bradley said. “We also have to make sure we’re not just happy behind the ball. We’re seeing different outlets and we need to be aggressive in the right moments.”

There’s a healthy respect between the two teams even though there may not be the rivalry that exists between them as it does between the U.S. and Mexico. The backstory between the two countries simply isn’t as rich either on the field or off it. But there is familiarity and the expectation that both teams will be in Russia next summer. Tim Howard kept a clean sheet the last time the two teams met at the Gold Cup and will likely start again in goal. Howard said the past results between both teams is making this into more of rivalry.

“It’s not as personal as Mexico,” Howard said. “They’ve gotten much better over the last few years and the play us well so it makes it tough.”

Should results go the Americans’ way, they could end the night with a four-point lead on Panama for the last automatic place from CONCACAF with three games remaining. If they don’t, they could in the midst of a three-team race with a difficult trip to Honduras next Tuesday. Most of the team has firsthand knowledge of playing at Red Bull Arena and want to take advantage of that, Bradley said, especially with a trip to San Pedro Sula looming.

“In some places, it couldn’t be more different,” Bradley said as he glanced around the empty stadium. “You look around here and it’s a beautiful stadium, a field that’s in great condition. I think tomorrow night is going to be pretty cool for this time of year, it’ll be a perfect night to play. Next Tuesday in Honduras, it will be the complete opposite.”